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Southeast Asia taps AI and satellites to tackle traffic jams

Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur turn to technology to ease congestion

These cars, trucks and motorbikes are bottlenecked on a Jakarta street. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

BANGKOK -- Emerging economies in Asia are turning to the "internet of things," artificial intelligence and satellites to alleviate their cities' traffic jams.

These technologies are being adopted amid concerns that traffic congestion might emerge as a drag on economic growth as the number of automobiles increases faster than more and wider roads are built.

According to one estimate, the total amount of annual economic losses due to traffic congestion in emerging Asia and elsewhere will reach nearly $36.6 billion in 2030.

Here in Thailand's capital, Japanese general trading house Toyota Tsusho, Chulalongkorn University and other parties in March launched a demonstration of a high-accuracy navigation system.

The system uses Japan's Quasi-Zenith Satellite System, nicknamed "Michibiki," which is Japan's answer to the U.S.-launched GPS service. Michibiki satellites fly over the region between Japan and Australia as if following a figure 8 pattern. The system is expected to help promote navigation services in Southeast Asian countries. Full operations could start in November.

The location information in the Bangkok demonstration has a margin of error of about 10cm, which allows the congestion in each lane to be determined.

In the demonstration, information about the locations of some 150,000 GPS-equipped taxis, trucks and other vehicles is analyzed by AI. Congested lanes appear as red on a monitor, while noncongested lanes appear as green. Vehicles are then directed toward the green lanes.

Toyota Tsusho said that it will try to commercialize the system within two years.

In Singapore, the city-state has been using its Electronic Road Pricing system for decades now. All cars are required to have a unit that communicates with sensors placed on gantries along roads. This allows the system to collect tolls from drivers. The tolls are higher on busy roads and higher still during rush hour; they act as deterrents.

But Singapore is planning to replace the ERP system with one that uses a global navigation satellite system, or GNSS. The change could come in 2020, and the new system will not rely on gantries and sensors.

The tiny country has little room for wider or more roads. The only avenue it can take toward alleviating traffic congestion is technology.

In Indonesia, Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus, a Japanese company under the umbrella of German auto giant Daimler, has equipped its Fighter mid-size truck, released this year, with a high-accuracy navigation system.

The system records routes previously taken by trucks, determines optimal routes and guides drivers along them. This helps make the trucks more fuel efficient.

In Malaysia, a government-affiliated organization, in partnership with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holdings, in January unveiled plans to connect traffic signals in the central part of Kuala Lumpur, the nation's capital, to the cloud.

The traffic situation would be analyzed based on data from 281 traffic signals and 382 cameras; congestion would be eased by the system switching the traffic signals at the most optimal times.

Asia's emerging economies "are considering the introduction of sophisticated technologies [to tackle traffic congestion] with a sense of speed that outpaces developed countries," said Fumihiko Nakamura, a professor at Japan's Yokohama National University.

Nakamura keeps abreast with the traffic situations in emerging economy cities.

New auto sales in six Southeast Asian countries rose 5% in 2017, a second consecutive annual increase. But road development is failing to keep pace.

Emerging economies in Asia and South America are at the top of the list of countries with the most congested city streets, according to Tomtom International, a Dutch map services provider.

The estimate that traffic congestion in emerging economies in Southeast Asia, South America, India and elsewhere will take $35.8 billion out of economic growth in 2030 was made by Nissan Motor and the Mizuho Research Institute.

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